It’s been so long since someone stepped into this classroom that the floorboards creak in protest. The chalkboard, presumed to once have been a forest green, is now almost white with a dry frost of chalk. The desks and chairs have given up waiting for the return of student life, accepting their role as inanimate objects; a curious hand shocking their surface like an intrusion. Ruhban Okulu (The Halki Seminary), once the main school of theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, has been closed since 1971 when the Turkish Parliament banned private higher education institutions.
And so, like a museum, it remains frozen in a particular section of time perched above Heybeliada like a brilliant secret among the green rush of trees. Appropriately named The Hill of Hope, the U-shaped monastery also houses a 17th century chapel, Aya Triada (The Chapel of the Holy Trinity), with its unique icon depicting Christ embracing his mother the Virgin Mary. The icon, more than 150 years old, was discovered to be double sided during restorations and is believed to fulfill the wishes of the devout, who hang rings and small silver plates around its frame.
Ruhban Okulu was originally the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, founded by Patriarch Photius I, almost a thousand years before the school was established. When the site fell into disrepair in 1844, during Ottoman rule, the monastery was converted into a school of theology by Patriarch Germanos IV with its inauguration taking place on October 1, 1844. After the 1894 earthquake took its toll on the school’s structure, architect Periklis Fotiadis took it upon himself to rebuild and reopen the school on October 6, 1896.
During its heyday, the school exercised a strict program in which students were not allowed to leave the grounds, not even to explore the island around them. The more than 990 graduates went onto become priests, bishops, archbishops, scholars, and patriarchs all over the world. Some also returned to be buried on the grounds of their beloved school.
The library of Ruhban is also a notable exception, with more than 120,000 books that, apart from theological subjects, also include world classics, geography, history, and philosophy in Greek and other languages such as French, German, and Latin. With some of the books dating back to the 1700s, the library is quite the haunt for researchers who are very much welcome to benefit from the facilities. The library is also open to book donations that will add on to the precious collection.
Once you leave the halls of the school with its high ceilings and pertinent silence, the buzzing life of its garden, complete with a small farm and greenhouse, arrives as a mollifying force, reinforcing the ‘hope,’ present in its name.
Photos by Elif Savari Kızıl